For the disgruntled customer, the web is the ideal medium to vent spleen. But is it any more effective than writing a letter of complaint?
When a no-frills airline left IT consultant Mike Webb, of Surrey, stranded after his Easter break, he complained to the airline - and fired up his laptop at the airport to detail his fight for compensation and invite others to air their own complaints.
His newly-built site, easyjet-sucks.org, describes how he and his young family were stuck in Spain after bad weather closed Alicante airport last Friday.
His letter of complaint - also faxed to Easyjet boss Stelios Haji-Ioannou - tells how rather than lay on an extra plane to ferry the 150 stranded passengers to Gatwick, the airline handed out tickets for flights with spare seats.
"I've previously been a happy flyer with Easyjet but this time was so horrendous I just had to complain," Mr Webb told BBC News Online. "While I don't think we've got much hope of getting compensation for the extra £200 we had to spend, I do want to gauge if cancelling a flight outright is something that happens often."
The Webbs got home two days late
An Easyjet spokeswoman says all passengers on the cancelled flight will get their money back, as it is company policy to refund those delayed by more than four hours. She says those stranded were offered seats on the soonest available flight - the Webbs chose to go on a later date - as providing a replacement service was not feasible.
Mr Webb is by no means alone in his attempts to use the internet to publicise a perceived wrong. Weblogs devoted to air travel rants include ryanairsucks.com, alitaliasucks.com and, well, you get the picture.
A users' forum dedicated to complaints against BT Openworld has proved so popular that rival internet providers Blueyonder and OneTel advertise on the site.
Type the word Singlepoint - the mobile phone company behind Phones4U and Dial-a-Phone - into a search engine and up pop complaints.
And the cable company NTL ended up buying the protest site nthellworld.com and employing founder Frank Whitestone to run it as an official complaints forum.
How to complain
While making public your indignation can certainly be cathartic - not least for the delicious thought that it might just put off potential customers - does it achieve much else?
A spokeswoman for that How to Complain website [see Internet links on right] says the best way to secure an apology, explanation or compensation is to complain through the firm's proper channels.
No-frills can mean no comeback when things go wrong
"I don't think a protest website is a good way to get action on your complaint. For one thing, the company has to look at the site, and it could just result in a court case. If nothing else, it could just put their backs up."
Legal action can backfire, as Alitalia found when its threats to sue were emblazoned across the very website it had tried to muzzle.
Even if management doesn't pay heed to your litany of complaints, staff might - those at NTL and the now-defunct ITV Digital regularly logged on to forums flaming their employers. Some posted their own gripes while others took exception to the criticism. One NTL staffer was so incensed by renegade site ntlhell.co.uk, he hacked into it and bombarded subscribers with abusive messages.
For those moved to make an official complaint, here are some tips from the How to Complain website.
- Rather than rant and rave at staff, save your energy and put it in writing.
- Set out your complaint in a letter, rather than using an off-the-peg compensation form.
- Be clear in your mind why you are unhappy; and what you want to happen as a result.
- Do not overwrite your complaint, and include all essential information. If you are a regular customer, make your loyalty clear.
- Include any special circumstances that may have made the experience more traumatic. Are you disabled or pregnant?
- If you make contact with someone in customer services, get a name so you can follow the matter up.
If you get no joy, contact the relevant watchdog organisation, or ask your local Citizens Advice Bureau or Trading Standards Office for advice.
Have you tried to get a company to act on a complaint? Send us your comments:
I used to work for a holiday company RESPONDING to customer complaints. The complaints that received the most concern and attention from us were the ones that followed the guidelines above. Illiterate rants, swearing, personal abuse, threats to sue over the price of coffee in the hotel restaurant and unreasonable demands (I want a full holiday refund as I didn't like the waiters) were given considerably less attention. You will not get anywhere if you call companies and shout and swear at their employees - which was the favoured method of many clients I dealt with.
I've been running a protest website against a Sheffield-based web retailer since last October, after they ripped me off to the tune of £100 and I discovered other people in the same boat. I soon realised the firm chose to ignore my website as it would just create bad publicity if they screamed blue murder. Seven months on, I have had more than 17,000 visitors and have amassed 1000+ complaints.
Setting up a website to attack one company may be unproductive, but lots of customers with valid complaints run up against organisations that just don't care. Try setting up a site that helps others complain to best effect against that industry. Many other customers will thank you, official bodies will start to consult you on future regulation, and you will make a difference. In the old days when companies cared about their complaints, this was how products and procedures were improved. In the internet age you have to be a little more constructively pro-active...
I flew with American Airlines to Canada early this year. The outbound flight was severely delayed, meaning that I arrived at my destination some 8 hours late. I put my complaint in writing, but also praised the ground and air staff for their patience. In response I recieved an excellent apology letter and a coupon for US$200 by way of compensation.
Tony Moss, UK
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